Tuesday 9 December 2008

A Musical Thought

Listening to Schubert (again) last night, it occurred to me that each generation - using the term very flexibly - has one great musical figure who seems to be THE composer, the nonpareil, the embodiment of ultimate musicality. When I was first finding out about music, this figure, glowering over the musical landscape, was undoubtedly Beethoven, who seemed impregnably ensconced at the musical summit. Then it seemed that his star faded slightly - enough for Mozart to take over the role of supreme musical genius (this might have had something to do with the theatrical nonsense of Amadeus - but was well merited). Now it's changed again and THE composer for our times seems to be Bach. Why is it, I wonder, that these changes occur - and does Bach's enthronement say something about our times? If so, it would seem to be something out of kilter with our supposed secularism, since Bach's music is surely about God - isn't it? And after Bach, who will be next?


  1. I suspect that it's because we live in an age governed by mathematics. Bach is both simple and complex in a very mathematical way.

  2. Scientists always pick Bach on Desert Island Discs.

    He is about God but it is a classical God, in charge of an ordered, clockwork, Newtonian universe.

    The next one will therefore have to be composer of the quantum flux. Maybe Stravinksy.

  3. The next in line is obvious: Andrew "Eurovision" Lloyd Webber

  4. Not sure about Igor Fyodorovich, for:

    Due to the tragic lowness of my brow
    All music that's high brow
    gets me upset.
    Each time I hear a strain of Stravinsky's
    I hurry to Minsky's
    And try to forget

  5. Fashion has it's grubby mits on this subject, and also exposure. It wasn't until Mendelssohn dug out the Matthew Passion (perhaps the greatest single work ever written if you were forced to name one) in the early 1840's that any sort of solid interest in Bach's music began. Until then he was firmly placed in the organ loft and, for a practical orthodox Lutheran, working with the small forces available to him, was really a keyboard specialist, with small vocal forces added. Today, 300 years later, he towers over all. Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert are in truth the only figures fit to stand in his great dark shadow, each of them a god of a slightly different hue. But it is worth remembering also that back in 1840, Mozart was generally considered a slight composer in comparison with Beethoven, though admired for his tunefulness (damned with faint praise, to be sure).
    None of this trio of great romantics quite give us the rigor and intellectual depth that JSB marries with great tunes; methinks only he had this gift.
    Who will be next? For the times we are about to be thrust into, we may need somebody who can always cheer us up. I give you papa Haydn who, even on an off day, produced works that can bring a smile to your face and, sometimes, make you laugh out loud.

  6. Ah yes Haydn - there's a thought...
    And Schubert was also widely considered a lightweight compared to Ludwig Van, even 50 years ago...

  7. Not absolutely sure that classical music can ever have one composer of whom it can be said "he is the greatest", many claims have been made about this or that composer and his music, Wagner's Ring Cycle has been described as the linchpin of western art, whereas few would disagree that over fifteen hours of dramatic, inspiring music interwoven with delicate motives is the work of a genius, but a linchpin? maybe.
    Often the interpreter of the music plays a significant role in its popularity, for me Eliot Gardiners nine symphonies brought me back to Beethoven as his Requiem led me back to Mozart, aided by Walter Legg's productions of Cosi Fan Tutti and Zauberflotte. Bad performances can turn the listener away, at the recent Beethoven festival in Bonn an orchestra I had never heard of before made the fifth sound like a cello concerto, some achievement.
    So, horses for courses maybe, we all agree though, JSB is among the very best, and Haydn, the seven last words is still for me the most emotive piece of music ever written, the line "Frau, hieir siehe deinen sohn" captures perfectly the anguish felt by mothers throughout history who have been predeceased by their children.
    Talking about music, the Clangers chatter is ringing in my ears as I type.

  8. Despite Bach's vaunted mathematical rigor he can still surprise one harmonically. You think you know where he's going, but he takes a sudden yet utterly logically consistent turn, and you get a frisson of wonder tingling through you. Bah does this consistently, in works in every genre. The marriage of logic and awe is what raises Bach up a level beyond most. People will keep returning to Bach for solace in difficult times not simply because of the orderliness of his music, but because it hints at Something Beyond even order-our-of-chaos.

    As for Wagner, I've always agreed completely with Arturo Toscannini's assessment: "Wagner has some wonderful moments . . . and some dreadful half-hours."

  9. Very true about Bach - and sometimes you really don't have a clue where he's going, as in Golberg Variation 25, the 'dark pearl'... And very true about Wagner too, imho.

  10. Oh and I see Radio 3 is going very big on Haydn in the new year - maybe his time is approaching...

  11. Bach is to music what Thomas Aquinas is to thought. As for Wagner, I've always liked Mark Twain's observation that "it's not as bad as it sounds."